Subconscious Performance

golfer teeing off

The Reverend Bill Graham once said, “A golf course is an island of peace in a world often full of confusion and turmoil.” At no time in my life has this been more true than in 2020. Yet, even in the midst of all the beauty, splendor, and peace, golf has always been instructional. It somehow exposes what is inside you. Observe any weekend golfer long enough and you will see how they react to adversity, the occasional bad break, and even success. If you observe them in a competitive situation, you will see how they handle stress, nerves, and the expectations both they, and others, put on them. Golf, especially competitive golf, is not for the faint of heart.

I was reminded of this 3 shots into our Club’s Invitational tournament last month. After a mediocre drive and good 2 iron, I was left with an uphill 60-yard shot to a green that had to be hit on the fly. Going over the green would foretell disaster and a high score, hitting it 50 yards meant it would roll back off the green. The distance was uncomfortable for me with the fairways damp and lie uphill. So, all this played into my consciousness as I attempted to hit a good shot. I did not, however, so after another pitch shot and missed putt, I walked off the green with an opening bogey when par should have been a foregone conclusion.

I share this experience because any golfer can relate to it. As a single-digit handicapper, I can easily hit that 60 yard shot. But I did not, at least not that time. With the time left in this post, let’s examine both why I did not, and how the lesson behind the why can lead to better performance both on the golf course and everywhere else – work included.

Bobby Jones once said, “competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course, the space between your ears.” While this is true, it can lead some to think that the best golf performer is always thinking about the next shot. Yet, as Dr. Bob Rotella has pointed out, the best performers are often the ones most disassociating themselves from conscious thoughts altogether. For example, the competitive golfer might daydream about something while walking from one shot to the next so that they are not thinking about the mechanics of the shot to come, or its outcome. Then, upon reaching their ball, they rely on a “process,” otherwise known as a “pre-shot routine,” that helps free themselves from conscious thoughts and allows their subconscious and natural ability to take over. Put in a way easier to grasp, ask a good golfer what they were thinking about while sinking a long putt and the most common answer is “nothing.” This is the subconscious at work!

Let’s revisit my bad shot mentioned above. Preparing to hit the shot, my conscious brain was in overdrive. The word “don’t” was featured front and center in my internal dialogue: “Don’t hit it over the green,” “Don’t swing too fast,” “Don’t..” The problem with the word “don’t” is that it is a negative word. As such, it activates the conscious side of the brain as the brain tries to not do what you are telling it not to do. But, like a dieter telling themselves, “don’t eat the chocolate cake tonight,” the word “don’t” often leads us to doing what we “do not” want to do —at least the chocolate cake tastes good however!

The alternative would have been for me to fixate on where the shot needed to go. Dr. Rotella, mentioned above, has preached this to golfers for years: “Play to the TARGET” (emphasis mine). Envisioning this is the cornerstone to any “pre-shot routine” as it quiets a golfer’s conscious thinking about mechanics and outcome, and frees the golfer to subconsciously hit the shot needed. Success is not guaranteed, but it is not stymied either. And that —stymying performance through overthinking it—is the point of this post.

Performance of any kind is better when the subconscious takes over and one’s ability is free to be what it is. Notice the word choice here: “free to be what it is.” I am not saying that letting the subconscious take over automatically leads to a successful outcome. My 60-yard wedge game, for example, needs constant practice and attention for it to be great. This is where practice (i.e., the process of improvement) needs both time and attention. Without it, and without the hard work necessary, it is unrealistic to expect something great to happen even if one’s ability is “free to be what it is.”

I have discovered that this kind of “freedom” is rare for me, and perhaps it is for you as well. There are many endeavors in life: sales calls, speaking engagements, parenting discussions, and on and on, where it feels like one needs a “mechanical” approach to their performance. But, this rarely leads to one’s best effort. So wouldn’t we be better off trusting our ability, letting go, and seeing what happens?

While most readers of the blog are not golfers, I hope this post makes everyone think about their performance at work, and even the performances of those they lead. As leaders, let’s encourage our followers when they are about to perform. Teach them to focus on where the next “shot” needs to land. Encourage them to trust their ability and to disassociate with what may or may not happen. Notice that I am not saying never to have hard conversations about performance. A golfer that never addresses serious swing flaws will never become elite. Addressing these flaws needs to happen via the practice range and take place on non-competitive days. Similarly, we as leaders need to be wise about where and when we are evaluating ourselves and others.

Whether on the golf course, or the corporate boardroom, performing under pressure is stressful. So, let go of outcomes and teach yourself and others to trust the work and practice that (hopefully) has been put into whatever the performance is. Then, let whatever is to happen actually happen…